One for All

Charter schools are perfect for special-education kids. That's the problem.

If they went to a traditional high school, Wendy Ginther and her three best friends would probably be in different cliques. Wendy, who is articulate beyond her seventeen years, is the writer. Erick Mudge, who's wearing a T-shirt with a Celtic design and a crystal around his neck, is the spiritual one. Alicia Long, with her long skirt and long, straight hair, is the beatnik. Jessica Hughes, donning black leather pants and bold eye makeup, is the "drama queen."

Instead, they go to the Center for Discovery Learning, a charter school in Jefferson County that all four say has changed their lives. In Wendy's case, the school saved her life.

Wendy, Erick and Alicia all have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), an affliction they say made it almost impossible for them to succeed in regular public schools.

Wendy was diagnosed when she was six years old, but she did well in Boulder Valley public schools through the seventh grade. "They stuck me in this special-education study hall," she says, "but then I didn't get it anymore in eighth grade. I'm not sure why; it may have been because my grades improved or because it was just a seventh-grade thing, but when I didn't have that study hall, my grades started to drop."

Because of ADD, Wendy has a difficult time transitioning from one subject to another. "I couldn't learn what they were teaching me. And I was fighting off depression," she says. "I couldn't go from thinking about history to thinking about math. I would still be thinking about history when I was in math class. It's like a frog jumping from lily pad to lily pad. Unless you find something so engrossing that you can't stop, you can't focus."

When she was a freshman at Arvada High School, the social pressures that came with being a teenager made school even more difficult. "The way you perform socially and academically are totally interrelated," says Wendy, who felt like an outcast. She had problems concentrating on her schoolwork while the popular students did well. "In ninth grade, a family member who I was really close to died, and that's when the shit hit the fan. I had no motivation, and the depression was crippling. I heard over and over from teachers, 'You're a smart girl, why can't you do this?' It made me feel so degraded. I knew I was smart, and I didn't know why I couldn't do it, either. I flunked all of my classes except for drama, teen living and one semester of English. I couldn't cope with not being able to learn, so I tried to kill myself."

Wendy overdosed on her antidepressant medication. She spent three days in a hospital intensive-care unit. After that, she spent ten days in the adolescent psychiatric unit at Children's Hospital and another two weeks in an outpatient treatment program. Before the suicide attempt, Wendy's mother had talked to her about alternative schools, but Wendy hadn't wanted to switch. Afterward, though, she listened to the special-education coordinator at Arvada High, who suggested she try CDL.

"When I walked in the door at CDL, the atmosphere was so friendly. I knew it was the school for me," she says. "This school caters to my learning. Here we have one class that we go to all day. I get a lot of science, history and math in my astrology class, but I can get it. I can really focus."

Like Wendy, Erick has also learned to focus at CDL. He enrolled after attending Arvada Middle School. "For people with ADD, doing three things at once is normal. Your mind thinks of so many things at once that you leave a lot of unfinished projects. You always plan to return to a project later, but that can mean six months later," he says. "I was put in special education in fourth grade because I was procrastinating. After two years here, I got out of special education. I told the teacher that the school was meeting my needs so I didn't have to be in special education anymore.

"The problem with a lot of schools is that they use one method of teaching," he continues. "I think of the human brain as a computer, and I think of teaching as software. Standing up and lecturing is compatible with certain types of operating systems, but not all."

Alicia says the intensive block classes at CDL have enabled her to finally focus, too. "I think I've overcome ADD...I mean, I've learned to overcome its side effects," she explains. "I don't think I would have been able to do that in a regular school. But it wasn't easy. It's taken four years."

This spring, Wendy, Erick and Alicia will graduate; Jessica, who isn't in special education but had behavioral problems ("I was a bully in middle school -- one of the people that beat up other kids for their lunch money," she says) has one more year. Alicia wants to be a fashion designer, Erick wants to work, and Wendy plans to go to college.

Parents of kids who need special education -- ranging from those with learning disabilities like dyslexia or ADD to severe mental retardation -- have been complaining for years that regular public schools don't involve them enough in developing their kids' federally mandated Individualized Education Plans (IEPs); that their children are isolated from their peers when they're pulled out of regular classrooms for special instruction; that when there are too many other students in the regular classrooms, their children don't get enough attention; and that classes aren't designed to engage their children.

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